Audience members who have been annoyed due to the bad manners of others may believe the problem is worsening, but it is nothing new.
It does often seem as if concert etiquette is a quaint notion from earlier times, a musty idea barely recognized by today’s audiences, much less put into practice. Bad manners appear to be rampant, with little sign of subsiding. I can bear witness to this tide, unfortunately, from either side of the concert hall — both onstage and off, as a member of the paying public and as a musician who, with shocking frequency, is disturbed while performing by ongoing conversation, rustling papers, unchecked coughing, ringing cell phones, glowing screens, the red glare of video recording, and camera flashes. While the prevalence of electronic devices has certainly contributed to the seeming trend and might give the impression that the situation is worse than ever, a glance at concert-going history plus a lifetime of annoying memories tell me that this is an illusion.
Bad manners not a recent development
A survey of the books written (and even largely still available, thanks to conscientious publishing houses devoted to printing facsimile editions of historically interesting publications)to address the question of decorum reveals an assortment of innumerable manuals covering every aspect of life in modern times as well as earlier eras. We can, with minimal effort, discover what was considered proper when dancing a waltz (or any other sort of dance, for that matter), how to drink tea way back when and today as well as the appropriate methods of dining during ancient eras up to the present; guidance is available concerning forays into the worlds of theatre and art, and there are directions pertaining to what was and is to be done in every conceivable situation in which we might find ourselves. This all would seem to indicate that bad manners, whether unwitting and born of ignorance or more deliberately self-centered, are not a modern phenomenon.
Familiar bad manners: it was ever thus
As a child in the audience I can recall being disturbed by noisy adults in nearby seats at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, among other venues, and just this week my colleagues and I were subjected to several of the nuisances mentioned in the first paragraph while playing an orchestra concert. My patience assuredly has not increased with age and might sway me to claim that the predicament is growing, but honesty compels me to admit that the bad manners of many spectators at cultural events have been in evidence for as long as there have been performances to attend. An article in the Seattle Times, written more than two decades ago, is a curious marker of how little progress has been made on this front. Ten years earlier, the author had published a column featuring “Ten Commandments for Audience Behavior” which went on to be included in program books around the world — yet here he is, some years later, again drawing attention to the unsolved problem and referring to the venerable conductors Ormandy and Stokowski as having made remarks on the subject. There is a wealth of stories, unfortunately, of performers’ being obliged to comment from the stage, as a desperate last resort, to curb audience misbehavior.
I fear there is not much hope for it, human nature being what it is, but I would love to believe — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — that we might yet attain a certain level of civilization in our concert-going and discard those distasteful bad manners. The educational efforts continue, from special courses to books for the young to a comprehensive guidebook from Amazon.com to not-so-subtle announcements made in concert halls before performances. All the criticism offered by Judith Martin in her Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (Freshly Updated)does not really bode well, but it is quite delightful to read, “The etiquette of symphony concerts is that the only muscles that may be moved are the ones needed for turning to glare at those who dare to breathe too loudly.”